By Dr Andrew Thompson, registered doctor at InstantScripts

What do COVID-19, asthma, allergies and the common cold have in common? For starters, they can all result in similar symptoms. This can make it tough to pinpoint what it is that is making you feel out-of-sorts.

Thanks to at-home and PCR tests becoming more common, it is now easier to diagnose (or rule out) COVID-19.

Dr Andrew Thompson is a registered doctor at leading telehealth and prescription service InstantScripts.

Working out whether your symptoms are from asthma, allergies or the common cold can be trickier. While allergies and the common cold may cause asthma-like symptoms (such as coughing), asthma requires a specific prevention and management treatment plan. Medical professionals may also recommend certain lifestyle changes to help prevent severe asthma attacks.

Below, I compare asthma vs allergies and recommend steps to better asthma control.

The main difference between asthma, allergies and the common cold, lies in prevention and treatment. For example, both the common cold and allergies can be prevented with fairly straight-forward actions, such as taking antihistamines. Reducing one’s exposure to certain triggers can keep allergy flare-ups at bay.

*Those who get allergies may also experience asthma during allergy season — and vice versa. Colds can also trigger or worsen asthma symptoms.

Asthma differs in that it is a chronic, respiratory disorder that cannot be cured. Asthma affects one in nine Australians, and causes wheezing, coughing, an ‘out of breath’ feeling and a tightness in the chest.

Similar to allergies, people with asthma may experience a physical reaction to ‘triggers’, including pollen, dust, food items and mould. This is called ‘allergic asthma’ and is the most common type of asthma.

Non-allergic asthma, on the other hand, is ‘triggered’ by illnesses (such as cold and flu viruses), certain medications, lifestyle factors (such as exercise-induced asthma) and environmental factors (such as cigarette and bushfire smoke or traffic pollution).

Asthma symptoms can vary from mild and persistent to severe, and sometimes even life-threatening. Severe asthma symptoms occur when airways become so affected that air can’t get in or out of the lungs. This is known as an ‘asthma attack’. Sufferers may feel like a weight is pressing down on their lungs and can become distressed, exhausted or even limp from trying to breathe.

Asthma symptoms can vary from mild and persistent to severe, and sometimes even life-threatening.

How to treat asthma

Treating asthma differs substantially from treating allergies or the common cold, both of which can usually be treated with over-the-counter medicines such as antihistamines.

I recommend that those with asthma create a proactive asthma action plan. This plan should include a list of asthma medicines and doses, guidance on how to navigate an asthma emergency, and your doctor’s contact details.

There are two main types of medicine required to treat asthma:

  • Asthma relievers. Asthma relievers open your airways quickly when symptoms flare up. Beta-agonists, medications that help relax muscles in your airways, making it easier to breathe, are the first choice for fast-acting asthma relievers.
  • Asthma preventers (also known as controllers). Asthma preventers come in the form of an inhaler or puffer which includes a low dose of steroid medicine. Asthma preventers are taken on a daily basis and help relax airways, which in turn helps prevent an asthma attack. Additional tablets may be prescribed for asthma triggered by exercise or allergies. Asthma preventers also help reduce inflammation in the lungs.

Asthma can be challenging to live with. While it cannot be cured, you can work with your doctor to create an asthma action plan that is tailored to your circumstances and lifestyle. Your plan may need tweaking from time to time, so I recommend reviewing your action plan at least once a year, and checking in with your doctor regularly.

With the right asthma action plan in place, asthma symptoms can be effectively managed before, during and after a flare-up, so that it does not interfere with your ability to live a happy and healthy life.

Dr Andrew Thompson is a registered doctor at leading telehealth and prescription service InstantScripts. Dr Thompson has nearly a decade of experience, including as an anaesthetist in the paediatrics, cardiology, trauma, and neurosurgery departments in hospitals, and as a telehealth doctor at InstantScripts, where he consults to 30-50 patients a day.